Monday, September 15, 2008

Lawsuit over student's suicide dismissed

For the past several months I've been covering this tragic case in Raymond of a student who killed himself one day after school following his suspension. The case raised many questions about whether a school and its teachers can be held legally responsible for a suicide. Take a look and see if you agree with the judge, who has now dismissed the case.

By Jason Schreiber
Union Leader Correspondent

RAYMOND - A judge has dismissed a wrongful death suit against the Raymond School District and a teacher, saying they can’t be blamed for the death of a middle school student who hanged himself after problems at school.

Rockingham County Superior Court Judge Kenneth McHugh found that neither the school district nor former special education teacher Susan Allen are legally responsible for seventh-grader Joshua Markiewicz’s death in January 2005.

Markiewicz, then 13-year-old student at Iber Holmes Gove Middle School, used a belt to hang himself in his bedroom closet after he was suspended from school. Before the suicide, he wrote notes on his forearm that said, “I hate Ms. Allen,” “Death,” and “I hope she suffers.”

The suit brought by the boy’s mother, Heidi Mikell of Deerfield, accused the school district and its teachers of branding her son as a troublemaker and driving him to kill himself.

“Whenever a 13-year-old child commits suicide that is a most tragic event. There can be many causes for such action and it is difficult to identify them after the fact. There is a natural tendency for loved ones to want to assess blame against any and all persons that may have interacted with the decedent in a negative way prior to his death. However, legal responsibility is something that cannot be left to speculation or wishful thinking. Here the facts as a matter of law do not translate into legal responsibility for either Susan Allen or School Administrative Unit 33 with respect to the death of Joshua Markiewicz,” McHugh wrote in his Sept. 3 order, which was made available to the public this week.

The lawsuit claimed that the suicide might have stemmed partly from an incident Joshua had with Allen on the day before his death. On that day, Allen accused Joshua of referring to two candy mints as “medicine.” Joshua denied making the statement.

According to the lawsuit, Allen “winked” at him as she reported the incident to the school’s vice principal, suggesting that she lied about the medicine statement and the wink was an attempt to make Joshua realize that he had no power. Joshua insisted that it was Allen who referred to the mints as medicine.

The lawsuit also claimed that Joshua had made suicidal threats at school in the weeks before his death, but McHugh found no evidence to suggest that Allen knew about those threats on the day of the incident with the mints. McHugh wrote that Allen could no have reason to believe that her interaction with Joshua on the day before the suicide would have resulted in his death the next day.

Joshua wasn’t suspended over the mint incident and returned to school the next day. “It was the incident that took place on the day of his death … January, 19, 2005, that would seem to have been much more likely to have caused (Joshua) to make the decision to take his life. On that morning the decedent tipped over a desk and allegedly called his teacher a bitch. It was for that conduct that he was suspended and his mother was asked to pick him up. The decedent then committed suicide at his home a few hours later,” McHugh wrote.

The ruling also addressed Joshua’s suicide notes. The fact that Joshua “left a suicide note claiming he hated everyone and further that he wrote Ms. Allen’s name on his arm and professed his hatred for her has no relevance to the court’s judgment in determining whether or not the conduct of Ms. Allen on January 18, 2005, could have reasonably fit into the category of intentional infliction of emotional distress.”

Middle school guidance counselor Lindy Moule had also been named as a defendant in the suit, but the court recently dismissed her from the case. It was unclear yesterday whether Mikell would appeal. Neither Mikell’s lawyer, William B. Pribis, nor Allen’s lawyer, John P. Fagan, returned phone calls seeking comment. Mikell has an unlisted phone number and could not be reached yesterday.

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